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BW Businessworld

Demise Of The Expert

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Victor Mayer and Kenneth Cuckier, authors of Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think, make themselves heard above all the noise surrounding the topic. Laced with analogies and rich perspectives, the book traces the evolution of data, taking the reader on an exploration of its past, present and an undoubtedly exciting future. While the book is full of interesting insights, its main message is a call for a change in the mindset — freeing our thinking process from the shackles of past experience and “letting the data speak”. 
 
This requires a new approach to data and its analysis — an approach that refuses to settle for small data sets when a profusion of data is available; that lives with the messiness of the real world instead of demanding exactitude; and which does not seek causality, but rather sees the value in co-relations.
 
The authors make a very important point when they say we have not made the most of our newfound freedom to collect and use larger pools of data, and reinforce the need to make the shift from “some” to “all” data. Acknowledging that this could get messy, they present the upside, which is that more data trumps better algorithms, and more data points offer greater value to offset the inaccuracies of mess and measurement. 
 
Correlation is the superhero in the world of big data and in the right hands, a powerful predictive mechanism. The authors cite the example of Walmart, which analysed historical data to correlate the sales of Pop-Tarts with the onset of storms and hurricanes. Or, for that matter, how the statisticians at Columbia University helped utility company Con Ed crack an exploding manhole problem. In both cases, the analysts acted quickly on the basis of the correlations they found, rather than waiting to establish causality and hypothesis. 
Vishnu G. Bhat
 
This ties in nicely with the sections on datafication and value, which stress the importance of storing collected data and always being on the lookout for more. Pools of big data are a treasure trove to be mined for trends, correlations and new value chains. This unlocks the value of dormant data and gives rise to other value creating opportunities, as data value shifts from its primary use for processing to its potential future use. 
 
It also marks a key shift in the way organisations think about and use data and in quite a few cases, enables them to transform their business models. 
 
The chapter titled “Implications” discusses the new order — or lack of it — at length. It floats the idea of entities leveraging each other’s data, at a price, if need be, to monetise even as they learn. The rise of data specialists and scientists and the emergence of new data intermediaries, who create repositories of useful information, are talked about. The authors say that the value of information is clearly shifting. 
 
More importantly, they ask whether this signals the demise of the expert. The biggest impact of big data is the overruling of human judgment by data-driven decision making. The subject matter expert is likely to lose some sheen and share the limelight with the big data geek. 
 
Touching upon the key issue of privacy while discussing risk and control, the authors speculate about a scenario where legal means of privacy protection are rendered obsolete. They also paint a future straight out of  Minority Report in which punishment is meted out based on predictions and probability of individualised human behaviour. 
 
This is the dark side of big data, which could gain the upper hand should it be allowed to dictate terms. Recommending a shift from “privacy” to “accountability”, the authors say the focus must be not on securing individual consent at the time of ­collecting data, but rather on holding people accountable for use. 
 
The final chapter — titled “Next” — concludes with a summary of the big data trend, what might happen when data speaks, and its impact on our daily life and the way we work and think. 
 
While the authors make a very compelling case for the role of big data in life and business, it is not entirely certain whether their assertion that big data will spell the end of cause and theory will hold true. As long as acting on the insights of big data ­involves an element of faith, big data will more likely speed up the conclusions on causality and theory rather than eliminate them completely. Hence, even though fears surrounding privacy, data governance, accountability and ownership are real, fears of “black box” decision making might not be.
 
That being said, the book holds many lessons for organisations keen on exploiting big data. They can take heart from the fact that industry has always found solutions to issues arising from ­promising trends and technology. This time will be no different. 
 
The reviewer is Global Head, Cloud and Big Data, Infosys
 
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 20-05-2013)